Day 2: Immigrant New York
In theory, a mandatory midnight curfew makes for an easy early morning. The reality of alarm clocks at seven in the morning, however, quickly dispelled such a notion. Rick, Josh, and I headed to Murray's down the street for bagels and coffee prior to our 8 o'clock class meeting. After an hour or so of navigating the quiet Sunday sidewalks and subways, we found ourselves on a ferry headed towards Ellis Island, where brisk March winds quickly erased whatever traces of warmth remained from my morning cappuccino. The view from the deck, however, was well worth the discomfort; a clear blue sky afforded an amazing view of both the city skyline and the Statue of Liberty.
Few sites in the U.S. are as important symbolically as 'Lady Liberty', and seeing the monument for the first time inspired a lengthy moment of reflection. Homberger's New York City: A Cultural and Literary Companion--one of the books we read in preparation for the trip--provided an historical account of this gift from France, but seeing it in person, not to mention on a boat like millions of immigrants before me, produced an altogether different reaction. We gained a little more insight into the immigrant experience at the Ellis Island Museum, which has several ship manifests, travel tickets, posters, and other documents on display. Much of the building has been restored and cleaned, however, stripping away a great deal of its character and relegating the murmurings of those before us to gimmicky audio recordings.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum provided a much closer look at early NYC life. Our guide Peter, a former Vietnamese refugee, mixed an account of his own experiences with the stories of the former inhabitants of the building. Although they came to the city more than half a century apart, their stories surprisingly shared many of the same struggles and other similarities. While life was hard for both generations of these immigrants, the experience of growing up in New York clearly provided a sense of community that is lacking in an increasingly gentrified city. These experiences, combined with our lunch at Katz's deli, have contributed greatly to me feel for NYC, which is increasing every hour I spend here.
Today we had a chance to see what immigrant life was like in New York. This morning we rode the subway downtown, jumped on a bus and rode down to Battery Park. While we were in line for the security checks, we were serenaded by a man with a guitar and a clown wig. His comical lyrics took the edge off of the bitter cold morning. After going through security worthy of an airport, we rode a boat out to Liberty Island to see The Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island to the to see what immigration to the city used to be like. The building has been vacant for a number of years, until recently when part of it was restored into an immigration museum. When people came to New York from Europe, the had to go through health exams before leaving Europe, and also when the arrived in the city. If they did not pass the exams they were forced to return to their home lands.
After returning to land, we walked through lower Manhattan with a quick tour of Wall Street. We made our way across town to Katz Deli where we ate lunch. This was a very unique meal for me, because of the atmosphere. It seemed to me like everyone was in a hurry to get their food, as if they were starving to death. The food was great, but the people in there made it hard to enjoy. I prefer not to fight through a crowd to eat.
Our tour through the Lower East Side exposed us to a variety of cultures. The streets were lined with signs in many different languages, mostly Chinese. Many different smells coming from the numerous restaurants filled the air. Even the graffiti was in different languages. While in the Lower East Side we took tours of the Tenement Museum. Half of us went on the tour of the tenements during the depression, and half of us went on the tour of the tenements of the garment making industry. I was on the garment tour, in which we saw what the buildings interior originally looked like as well as what it looked at after it was restored. The rooms were small and unhealthy to live in. These families not only lived there, but also made a living of making clothes. There was little or no heat in the winters, and the summers were extremely hot. When it came time to sleep, they pushed all of their work supplies aside and slept on whatever furniture they had. These conditions were very depressing and undesirable.
In a way, we were immigrants today. None of us have been here before, so we are very unfamiliar with the city. One of the first sights we saw today was the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, just as most immigrants first saw these same places. We are encountering numerous different cultures in one area. And just as the immigrants lived in small apartments, our hostel rooms are not exactly spacious, but we will find a way to survive.